South Africa

On the spot: Zuma and the Internationals

By J Brooks Spector 30 October 2012

President Zuma met the international press corps Monday to review his administration’s successes, provide a preview of the government’s agenda for the future and reassure that, yes, he is large and in charge. But if one had to give a grade, it might well have been an ‘Incomplete’, with the notation ‘needs more work’. Much more. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

South Africa’s sovereign debt has been downgraded by two international rating agencies, a sharply negative story in The Economist has been ricocheting around the world, there is continuing violence and labour unrest in the country’s platinum belt, a judicial commission investigating the events at Marikana is already on something of a rocky road and his party and government are preoccupied with the run-up to the ANC’s Mangaung leadership conference. This was the backdrop for the breakfast meeting Jacob Zuma held with the international press corps Monday. 

It could have been the moment a head of state prays for: a chance to tell the world about his new initiatives and thereby set the lead, or perhaps to underscore how he feels his fellow citizens’ pain, Bill Clinton-style.

Instead, Zuma used the moment to recite a list of ANC and government projects, commemorations and anniversaries. As such, the president’s speech had something of the flavour of a memorandum on a company committee’s plans for the annual Christmas party.

Imagine for a moment the impact if the president had announced that after careful consideration, and following the commitment of the media to police itself more effectively, he was going to encourage his party to drop the proposed protection of secret government information legislation and its ideas for media tribunals. Or,  

  • he announced he had decided to ensure every family that lost someone at Marikana would be able to keep a representative at the judicial inquiry at government expense, because it was the right thing to do.
  • that he had taken note of the need for greater austerity in government spending and as a result he would voluntarily donate a tenth of his salary to a list of charities and important poverty alleviation initiatives. And that he would strongly encourage his ministers, deputy ministers and members of parliament in his party to follow suit.
  • he was issuing an executive instruction that there be no more frivolous, wasteful, excess spending on lavish food, drink and travel by his government.

Instead, Zuma offered updates on an international solidarity conference for delegates from the anti-Apartheid struggle that had produced a “framework for a progressive world order” that was a call “on progressive forces all over the world to mobilise for the building of a world progressive movement.” And that the attendees “remain strong advocates for international progressive solidarity where humanity will be a centrepiece of world governance and development.”

There were those obligatory salutes to South Africa’s struggle heroes and to an aging Fidel Castro, to the ANC’s centenary and “the centenary flame (that) has served as a reminder of the undying spirit and resolve of the founding leaders of the ANC. It has resurrected the spirit and memory of our heroes and heroines who took the Apartheid system head on even if it meant their death.”

There were also descriptions of progress in building party membership and the renewed energy within the ANC, and government progress in extending “water, electricity, sanitation, roads, health care and other services to millions who did not have access to these services before.” The latter is certainly true, even if his detractors choose to ignore this success of the post-1994 government. 

Also on the plus side, there was a nod to his administration’s justifiably proud accomplishment in beating back HIV/Aids with a regimen of improved treatment, prevention and public awareness efforts. As Zuma noted, “The rate of new infections has decreased from 1.4% to 0.8% in the 15-24 age group. We now have 1.7-million South Africans on anti-retroviral treatment which has improved life expectancy. We have reduced mother-to-child transmission of HIV from about 8% in 2008 to 3.5% in 2011. Remarkably, 20-million people have to date been tested for HIV through our voluntary testing campaign.” This is no minor matter. Progress here may well be one of the great successes of the Zuma administration, and it matters a great deal for millions.

But then it was back to that laundry list again. Marikana was a painful incident, but it has become the rationale for the government to engage with the mining sector to ensure the proper implementation of the Mining Charter and the concomitant need for mining companies to build better housing for their employees. This was, as he said, as the recently appointed judicial commission tries to figure out exactly what happened. Yet, there was nothing about the role of the police in this.

Next it was on to the ANC’s upcoming National Conference and how the vigorous discussion in the lead-up to this meeting actually represents the robust democratic tradition evolving in South Africa. It is something to be embraced and celebrated, rather than concerned about. And how the tripartite alliance “is stronger than at any other moment in our history of struggle”.

And then it was media relations and how to balance press freedom with “the equal enjoyment of human rights by all citizens.” The president explained “In light of the above, the ANC resolved at the National Policy Conference in June to request Parliament to use the Press Freedom Commission report and proposals as a basis for assessing whether anything further is required in order to address the concerns articulated in the 2007 ANC Conference.”

“The view of the June policy conference was that the Press Freedom Commission proposals have gone a long way towards addressing the issues that the ANC drew attention to at the Polokwane conference. Any further work should draw on this progressive advance that was influenced by the ANC raising these issues in the public domain. We will watch with great interest the extent to which the media implements the recommendations of its own Commission. That will demonstrate the seriousness with which the recommendations are taken within the industry.” Or put another way, we’ll be watching just how the press monitors its own behaviour rather carefully in the coming months.

Then it was time for Q&A. The president was asked why he had decided to drop his legal action against political cartoonist Zapiro. President Zuma answered that since his opponents in this case had now admitted Zapiro’s cartoon had been defamatory, there was now no longer any need to pursue legal remedies. The only thing left is for the other side to apologize and then all is forgiven.

As to whether South Africa was verging on a metaphorical tipping point, as implied by sharply more negative reportage about the country and the recent financial ratings decisions, the president effectively replied that the only real problem is that of the quality and texture of reporting on the country. Yes there are problems, but his government is working hard to deal with them.

When he was asked about the widening gap between the rich and the poor in contemporary South Africa (a country that now has the among the world’s highest Gini coefficients of inequality), the president insisted such a gap had always been there, only that pre-1994 the data wasn’t available to show it properly. Similarly, on corruption, the president argued corruption had also existed pre-1994, something any fair-minded person would have to agree was certainly true. 

Oh, and by the way, there was no need for him to comment on the controversy swirling around the development and rebuilding of his Nkandla homestead; the public protector is already looking into the question. And in any case, Zuma explained that his family does things as a family. The government has not built his house. It was the government that had come to him to explain they needed to build all those security features now there.

As far as the Marikana investigation was concerned, in response to one journalist who asked if withholding payments to keep the next of kin at the inquiry had been mean-spirited, Zuma replied the important things were to get to the bottom of the issue but also to monitor the cost of the investigation.

Given an opportunity to comment on American foreign policy towards Africa during the Obama administration, or after the 6 November election, Zuma said only that US policy towards Africa should grow. With regard to Syria’s current agonies, the UN should take a unanimous decision on getting the two sides together. South Africa could air its views as part of a comprehensive discussion at the UN and, oh, by the way, this was yet another reason to include Africa more thoroughly in the governance of the UN.

Finally, when asked about the future of Anglo American, the major mining company operating in South Africa whose CEO had just resigned, Zuma again chose not to venture a detailed opinion. He did not want to dictate anything about the company’s future, not even a preference for a new CEO to be selected from among South African candidates.

The larger lesson from the day’s event was that it was a tailor-made moment to reorient the international conversation about South Africa away from the current zeitgeist of the country as a potentially failing state. Unfortunately, this time around, too often the conversation reverted back to the usual suspects. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma (Greg Marinovich)


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